Breckenridge firefighters remember the late Todd “TJ” Johnson
After seven years of living with brain cancer, Breckenridge firefighter Todd “TJ” Johnson died of complications early Saturday morning on Aug. 1, 2015. The 46-year-old Summit County resident was remembered for his compassion, commitment and strength, leaving behind several friends and his family at the Red, White and Blue Fire District.
“TJ always had a smile on his face and a can-do attitude,” said Red, White and Blue deputy chief Jay Nelson. “He helped with the transformation of the fire district from a volunteer department to fully-paid status we are today. He was one of the first firefighters we hired that helped lead the change.”
Johnson joined Red, White and Blue Fire in 2000, after serving with Lake Dillon Fire for two years. He moved up to Summit County from Chicago in 1992, drawn by the fresh mountain air, but stayed for the community.
“… After being diagnosed with cancer, I found that living here in the mountains and being surrounded by my amazing friends could be no other better healing process for me,” Johnson said in a previous interview with the Summit Daily.
Johnson was diagnosed in 2008, after a softball game. After leaping into the air to catch the ball, he found himself on the ground, having suffered a seizure. Shortly after the incident, doctors found a large brain tumor, parts of which were deemed inoperable.
Johnson began an extensive healing process, involving surgery and chemotherapy, where he regained motion in his arms and legs, and relearned to tie his shoes and walk. He walked out of the hospital a year later, continuing with the active lifestyle he had always known.
“Todd’s commitment to the Fire Service, his fellow firefighters and first responders, and his community was unparalleled. He met every challenge he faced head-on. His cancer diagnosis was no exception,” Red, White and Blue Fire wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “TJ was a kind, compassionate, loving spirit who found beauty in living each and every day.”
Johnson took leave from his work as a firefighter in 2009, a little less than a year after his diagnosis. But he still found ways to help others. Just two years after his surgery, Johnson adopted Buddy, a small terrier mix, and trained him as a service dog, helping adults with traumatic brain injuries.
“Everybody who ever met TJ really loved TJ a lot. He was a friend to everybody,” said Brent Chapman, a firefighter for Red, White and Blue. “I think in TJ’s mind there was no such thing as strangers in the world, just a friend he had never met yet.”
He added that working alongside TJ, he showed a clear passion for his job and responded well to emergencies. Chapman noted that as an EMT, Johnson had the best bedside manner between his soft-spoken nature and compassion for others.
“They knew when TJ was talking to them that they were going to be taken care of really well. He was one of a kind for sure,” Chapman said.
A public memorial service will be held in honor of Johnson this Sunday, at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. The brief service will last from 7:50-8:20 a.m. The day, Aug. 9, carries weight in that it is the seven-year anniversary of his diagnosis.
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